AHEAD of a Celtic Connections gig, Fiona Shepherd talks to Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy about making music with his son
Jeff Tweedy is listing a few of his favourite family bands. Gospel veterans The Staple Singers are an obvious choice – Tweedy has curated and produced Mavis Staples’ last two albums, including writing a couple of gorgeous new songs to add to her empathetic catalogue. “Mavis and I have formed a bond and an extended family band too,” he says.
Then there’s the effervescent Jackson 5. Just saying their name is enough to make you smile – and then cry a little at how it all turned out. “It’s a bit of a sad story, I guess,” says Tweedy. “A lot of bands like that were pretty abused I think.”
Finally, he mentions another band of brothers, The Kinks, whose warring siblings Ray and Dave Davies make the Gallaghers look like the Waltons. “I think that’s maybe my favourite band of all time that has a family element.”
All bands are families anyway, they say. Tweedy has had his fair share of fraternal ups and downs with his fellow musicians, first in alt country trailblazers Uncle Tupelo, where his relationship with alcohol in turn threatened his relationship with his bandmates, and then leading the epic Americana adventurers Wilco over the past 20 years.
But it appears that one of his most harmonious musical relationships is the one he shares with his eldest son Spencer. The pair have played together since Spencer was small, working together on the Mavis Staples albums, and even forming a punky trio, The Racoonists, with younger son Sammy. Sammy is less enamoured of the family business than Spencer so, to date, their catalogue comprises one split single, Behold a Racoon in the Darkness, recorded with San Francisco art rockers Deefhoof. One recorded outing but, still, the title alone is enough to put them up there with the family band greats.
Two out of three Tweedys is also more than fine. When Tweedy Sr starting gathering material for a possible solo album – Wilco taking another of their periodic breathers – he found a natural collaborator in 18-year-old Spencer, who plays a variety of instruments (drums a particular speciality), reads music, has an ear for arranging and is an obliging creative foil for his father. Soon enough, it became apparent that the solo record was actually a joint effort. But what to call this freshly minted dynamic duo? Making the most of that DNA link, they settled on the straightforward Tweedy. So far, there’s been no sign of musical or personal differences in this outfit, no grounding or docking of pocket money.
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• You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Google + “Spencer’s a really easy to get along with kid,” says Tweedy. “We have a good rapport. In general, my wife and I feel pretty lucky that both of our kids seem to enjoy being around us. I try not to do too much parenting in the studio or when we’re touring, just because I want him to feel respected as a musician and as a part of a group. I really respect his ears and his opinions. If I have anything I need to do parenting-wise, I usually do it behind closed doors or at the hotel. But it really doesn’t come up. He’s very tolerant of me. I think that probably makes it easier.”
However, the background to making their album was far from a blissful domestic dream. Sukierae is named after Tweedy’s wife and Spencer’s mother not simply to create another cosy family connection but because, following her diagnosis with cancer last year, concern for her health was always there as an aching backdrop to the writing and recording process. More than ever, the Tweedys found solace and focus in their work, as the carer became the cared-for.
“We had to move things around a little bit to be home for her treatments and things like that,” says Tweedy, “but it gave things a normalcy – it’s very normal for our family that there’s a record being worked on. I know that there are people that don’t have music as a big part of their life and I have a really difficult time picturing that because it’s been a sustaining thing for me in my life. It’s been a really trying year for us and we still have a little way to go but her prognosis is very good. She’s slowly but surely getting much stronger and healthier, so we’re looking forward to even more normalcy in the next year without having to make records to cope.”
Perhaps as a sign of just how much they were coping with, Tweedy and son recorded two albums of material in this time and chose to release them simultaneously as one double package. “We’d debate which one to put out and thought that one of them sounded lonely without the other one so it ended up just becoming one record,” says Tweedy. “I think it was the right decision. When I listen to that record, all that material really does seem to make sense together and as the challenges facing our family became more intense I think that material also became much more part of a period of time that would be hard to listen to apart without it seeming like it belonged together.”
Sukierae certainly ranks among Tweedy’s more downbeat, slow-burning musical collections, and it’s tempting with hindsight to ascribe autobiographical significance to songs such as the bare ballad Nobody Dies Anymore or the questioning lyrics of Diamond Light Pt.1: “are you scared? Are you frightened? Terrified of being alone?”
“When I write songs I don’t shy away from sentiment,” says Tweedy. “I look for things to sing about that have some emotional resonance for myself and whenever a traumatic event happens in your life a great deal of bias confirmation kicks in and you only hear the parts that coincide and make sense and you disregard the 20 lines in the same song that don’t apply at all.” But Sukierae is not a difficult listen, more of a diverse, absorbing journey, which will be an advantage to Tweedy when they head out on a tour which takes in a Celtic Connections appearance. As Tweedy remarks, it’s more fun hitting the stage with 20 new songs to play rather than just ten, especially when both of these in-demand musicians aren’t sure when they will get the opportunity to make another album as Tweedy. As for playing together in the future, that’s a no-brainer inevitability.
“It’s funny,” says Tweedy, pondering the politics of father-son partnerships. “People my age ask Spencer ‘what’s it like playing with your dad? That’s got to be really weird’ and people Spencer’s age ask him ‘how cool is it that you’re going on the road with your dad?’ That whole generation gap and the tension between the generations seems like it’s skipping a generation for him and his friends.”
• Sukierae is out now on dBpm Records. Tweedy play Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 29 January, as part of Celtic Connections
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